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4.1 Introduction

Banana production has been used by researchers as a clear example of how technical change occurs in discontinuous steps with intervals of little or no change in between (Evenson et al. 1964). Innovations during the 1970s, for example the substitution of Gros Michel by Cavendish varieties, the boxing of bananas and overhead cableways for fruit transport, resulted in lowering production costs, an expansion in production and decreasing world prices. Apparently no innovations (leaps) were identified during the 1980s, which led researchers to believe that there was little hope of increases in productivity and reductions in production costs during the late 1980s and early 1990s (FAO 1996). However, banana production expanded and import world prices fell during this period at rates of 2 and 3 percent respectively. Reduced prices means lower production costs, which can be achieved not only by technical change, but also through technical efficiency, increases in scale or the relocation of productive resources following changes in relative input prices.

Productivity growth could have been achieved through innovations that were universal in character, affecting all industries including bananas. Multimedia and the Internet facilitated the drawing up of contracts, and the Internet quickened the access to market information. Many weekly publications such as Sopisco News and Semana Bananera provide information about market developments, shipping schedules and prices, while international organizations such as the FAO regularly publish retail and wholesale prices in the major importing countries. Effective information transfer between customers and suppliers helped to manage complex markets and reduce wastage. Moreover, lower communication costs had an impact on transaction costs: it improved the arbitrage of prices, loosened the vertical integration that characterizes the industry, and allowed the birth of new trading companies along the chain. This chapter will concentrate on technical changes specific to the banana industry in the period 1985-2002.

Reducing production costs in the absence of technological breakthroughs requires new approaches to technical change. New insights into technical change have highlighted that innovations are permanent and continuous along “avenues of technical change”. These perspectives are perhaps more appropriate to explain gains in productivity where no apparent technological breakthroughs are observed. An example of a technological avenue is irrigation, and technical changes are fertigation, drip irrigation and the fine-tuning of water supply. The contributions of these small innovations accumulate and in most cases enhance the effects of each other, resulting in significant impacts on productivity. Moreover, in the highly vertically integrated banana industry, small changes that do not disrupt established routines along the chain are more likely to be adopted than large technological changes. This chapter attempts to identify those apparently small technical innovations specific to the banana industry, from production to ripening, that appeared in the last 17 years (1985-2002) and that could have contributed to reducing banana world prices. It also highlights the major institutional developments of the banana research network.

4.2 Crop Breeding

The search for varieties resistant to pests and diseases has been a major drive in the history of banana breeding programmes. Due to the limited number of landraces available and their asexual reproduction, bananas have a narrow genetic pool that makes them vulnerable to pests and diseases. As early as the 1920’s, plant breeding programmes in the Caribbean were already searching for varieties resistant to panama disease both in the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (Trinidad) and in Jamaica. New breeding programmes were initiated throughout the world in the mid 1970s to combat Black Sigatoka, including the Fundación Hondureña de Investigación Agrícola (FHIA) and more recently in 1983 EMBRAPA-CNPMF in Brazil and CIRAD-FLOHR in Guadeloupe and West Africa.

The International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP) was created in 1985 as a research and information centre to support research carried out around the world. It has a documentation service specializing in bananas and contains the world's largest Musa germplasm collection. INIBAP worked closely during the late 1980s and early 1990s with regional breeding programmes in Latin America, Africa and Asia. In Africa with the Centre africain de recherches sur bananiers et plantains (CARBAP, former Centre régional de Recherches sur Bananiers et Plantains CRBP) in Cameroon, and with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria. Both institutes multiplied varieties conventionally bred by INIBAP, distributed them to regional programmes and provided training. In Asia INIBAP worked with the Asia and Pacific Regional Network of INIBAP (ASPNET), established in 1991 and known today as the Banana Asia-Pacific Network (BAPNET). The network has been involved in supporting Musa germplasm collection, conservation and evaluation, in coordinating regional collaboration and communication among Musa researchers, and in assisting the intra-regional exchange of information. Despite the creation of all these research institutions, analysts believe that the number of Musa breeding programmes remains small in light of the value of banana world trade and its importance as a global staple (Escalant and Paris 2002).

PROMUSA (Global Programme for Musa Improvement) was established in 1997 to strengthen the collaboration and the exchange of information between researchers involved in Musa genetic improvement. It aims to develop a wide range of hybrids suitable for banana growers worldwide, and brings together conventional breeding based on hybridization, with genetic engineering and biotechnological techniques.

One way of obtaining genetic variability is through the use of biotechnology, but controversy has arisen in recent years about the possibility that this technique may produce unsafe food[28]. While the FAO recognizes that genetic engineering has the potential to help increase production and productivity in agriculture, forestry and fisheries, it is also aware of the concerns about the potential risks posed by certain aspects of biotechnology. These risks fall into two basic categories: the effects on human and animal health and the environmental consequences. The human risks of transformed bananas with anti-fungal or nematode toxins expressed in leaves or roots are probably small, while risks to the environment are even less likely because most of the varieties traded worldwide are sterile. These tools offer new opportunities for solving agricultural problems where traditional techniques have failed or have limited potential, as in the case of banana breeding.

The techniques of improving varieties by genetic engineering are relatively novel and research activities are still largely restricted to specialist laboratories. Considerable research efforts have been devoted in the last ten years to the production of genetically modified bananas. Protocols have been developed and such plants have been produced under contained conditions confirming that in principle, bananas can be genetically modified. Research is underway to discover methods of preparing the basic (parent) plant material for transformation, and for the transfer of the required genetic characteristics. This work is being done by commercial companies, universities in the United States and Europe and at research institutes specializing in plant sciences. Since the cost of this research is high, requires sophisticated laboratories (with adequate containment facilities) and highly qualified staff, the release of a transformed banana variety for commercial production is unlikely to take place this decade (FAO 2001a).

There is a direct link between the availability of disease resistant varieties and increased yields for farmers producing for local consumption, both in bananas and plantains. Farmers that supply local markets with various banana types (dessert, cooking, brewing and plantains) need access to resistant clones but often lack the financial resources to pay for the technology. However, the transformation of all the varieties currently grown in countries such as Uganda or India, where there is a great diversity that meets specific preferences, is unrealistic. Moreover, this may not be desirable for its success could lead to the eventual loss of genetic diversity, a worry that is already being addressed by INIBAP as old inherently less productive clones are discarded with changes in peoples' preferences. Producers are interested in retaining varietal diversity and, at the same time, incorporating new developments which enhance productivity.

Biotechnology can perhaps offer a new opportunity for food security where bananas are important sources of food, particularly among smallholders in developing countries. If many different genes for disease resistance, controlled ripening and so forth were developed, and many different clones of banana with different genes were available to smallholders, the risk of unpredicted, widespread damage by any one new disease would be small. In this sense, biotechnology could actually improve the situation of small farmers, permitting the extension of the season and making more fruit available for local consumption over longer periods.

4.3 Sowing

Banana yields tend to fall from three to five years after planting, and decline rapidly after ten to fifteen years. For existing yields to be maintained, a cyclical process of replacement of old for new plants must be undertaken. Traditionally, banana plantations have been considered a perennial crop because farmers allowed the plant to shoot suckers from a subterranean stem. However, the replacement of plants every few years (or even in single-cycle plantations) became a reality at the end of the 1980s when bulbil and laboratory in vitro propagation techniques were commercialized. Pioneered in China, Province of Taiwan, because of virus problems, the practice has now spread to all commercial areas.

Plants in a single-cycle plantation have strong vigour and high yield potential because of the juvenile nature of the material and their photosynthetic efficiency. They have greater leaf area and mass accumulation compared to conventional plants. The higher yields can persist for up to three harvests, after which they do not appear to show significant differences with conventional plants. Single-cycle consists of the micro-propagation of cells and the transfer of plants from in vitro culture to the nursery for acclimatization, where they are grown to field planting size. Micro-propagation of bananas and nurseries are now present in most banana exporting countries.

To be profitable, single-cycle plantations need to be complemented by a series of accompanying techniques. Much care has to be taken in transporting the plants from the nursery to the plantation, and the soil needs to be treated with pre-emergence herbicides. As the plants have low nutrient reserves, daily fertilization is required, with fertigation being the preferred option. While single-cycle plantations allow for high density planting (and farmers to calibrate it year after year) with yields reaching up to 100 tonnes per hectare, it provokes an intensive depletion of soil fertility, which requires close monitoring if yields are to be maintained (Lahav 1995). Finally, farmers must be able to cope with the harvest and packing of vast amounts of fruit that is concentrated in a short period of time.

The commercial success and speed of diffusion of single-cycle plantations is due to the economic benefits it brings to farmers. Compared to conventional plants, micropropagation plants: have higher uniformity, are free from transmissible pests and disease, grow faster, flower earlier, complete their first cycle faster than conventional plants and allow the timely production of fruit (also known as Crop Timing Plantation or CTP) in periods of high demand[29]. Moreover, micropropagation allows a faster multiplication of desirable plants, which speeds the pace of breeding programmes[30]. Tissue culture also enables farmers to plant material certified as disease and pest free. However, in most cases it will not eliminate all of the banana viruses and only delay the need to use chemical control.

4.4 Pests and Diseases

Black Sigatoka has become the most damaging disease of modern banana production. It affects the growth and productivity of plants and is the main reason fruit is rejected by exporters. The fungus (Mycosphaerella fijiensis Morelet) decreases photosynthesis, reduces fruit size and induces a premature maturation. It was first observed in Fiji in the early 1970s, and in Latin America a decade later. The cost of controlling the disease in large plantations is about $1,000 per hectare, but it is higher in smaller plantations that cannot apply fungicides by air. Small farmers usually opt for other measures of control such as the removal of old infested leaves, intercropping with disease resistant crops and planting in partial shade which weakens the development of the disease[31]. It can be found all over the world with the exception of the Canary Islands, and its management and control has become a key concern of commercial banana producers.

In recent years researchers have been working intensively to understand the disease and to find new agrochemicals because the fungus quickly develops resistance to new fungicides. For example, in the XV International Conference by ACORBAT (2002) 21 different studies dealt specifically on Black Sigatoka[32], testifying to the importance of this disease for the international community.

Farmers have successfully used Integrated Pest Management to combat black Sigatoka in the Dominican Republic where bananas are planted in dry areas. This has allowed the country to expand its production of organic bananas from 2 000 tonnes in 1993 to over 60 000 in 2000, and to become the world’s number one exporter of organic bananas.

Plastic sleeves that separate the hands on each bunch during the growing period and reduce the amount of scarred fruit and rejects may also inhibit somewhat the spread of black Sigatoka. They accelerate maturity before the harvest, which works against Sigatoka, by maintaining a warmer and more humid microclimate around the developing fruit. Moreover, the diapers increase land productivity by decreasing the crop rotation cycle (Richard Yudin 2003, Banana Forum).

The need to comply with phytosanitary and quality requirements of import markets, as well as with bilateral and multilateral environmental agreements, has driven innovations on pest and disease control. Quality assurance schemes, specifically those related to low pesticide content, are increasingly being demanded by consumers in the major importing countries. Therefore low pesticide pest control techniques, such as integrated pest management, biological control, pest eradication and the prevention of pest proliferation have gained importance during the 1990s.

Where pests are not present, prevention from introduction has proved to be an effective way of avoiding future losses, including crop damage and quarantine restrictions on trade[33]. Tissue cultured plants are being used by farmers to avoid the introduction of the pests and diseases where bananas are grown for the first time. Tissue culture laboratories are relatively cheap to establish; a modest facility could cost US$50 000 to equip. Tissue culture laboratories, many on a commercial basis, now mass-produce the Cavendish varieties, plantains and some of the new FHIA "hybrids". In developing countries, individual plant costs are in general significantly cheaper than production costs in Europe.

4.5 Environmentally-friendly and socially-acceptable technologies

The period 1985-2002 saw environmental issues related to agriculture become a major concern among researchers, policy makers and the general public. The loss of biodiversity and its effect on sustainability, the detrimental effects of pollution on productivity, the negative feedback of pollution on poverty, the pollution of surface and underground water, health-related concerns on farm labour caused by the inappropriate use of chemicals, the risks of biotechnology, and consumer’s demand for ‘clean products’ are but few of the issues that affect the global market since the mid 1980s, and that have had an influence on the way bananas are produced and traded (see Chapter 5).

Governments, the international community and markets have fostered the development and spread of environmentally-friendly technologies through extension programmes, rules and regulations and price premiums. Throughout the 1990s popular alternatives to an excessive use of pesticides included Integrated Pest Management (IPM)[34], and more recently Organic Agriculture. IPM is described as a multi-disciplinary crop protection approach based on ecological processes, a collection of techniques that have in common the in-depth knowledge of pest dynamics, their role in the ecosystem and the likely economic damages it can cause at different levels of attack[35]. IPM is based on the idea that the eradication of pests may not be desirable, and therefore pest populations are to be managed at levels of infestation that causes minimum economic damage. Organic Agriculture, on the other hand, has become a familiar characteristic of products among consumers, and by segmenting the market has offered new opportunities for producers (see Chapter 5).

International rules and regulations (including quality assurance programmes) have also prompted technological changes in the industry. The earliest example of a multilateral environmental agreement that impacted production methods is the Montreal Protocol. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (signed in 1987 and amended in 1990 and 1992) stipulates that the production and consumption of compounds that deplete the ozone layer are to be phased out. One such compound is methyl bromide, a highly effective fumigant used to control insects, nematodes, weeds, and pathogens in more than 100 crops. Much concern has been raised about the detrimental effects on productivity of phasing out this pesticide, and research is has been undertaken worldwide since the mid 1990s to find alternative techniques.

Following the 1992 Rio conference, the International Standardization Organization (ISO) based in Switzerland developed generic management systems standards for environmental management. For the banana industry the most important has been ISO 14001, released in 1996. Dole Food's banana plantation in Costa Rica became the first agricultural producer in the world to receive certification that its environmental management standards meet these requirements in 1998, while more recently Chiquita Brands was also awarded an ISO 14001 for their environmental management system.

Civil society organizations, and in particular non-governmental organizations, have also engaged on initiatives with the private sector to set social and environmental standards. In 1991 the Rainforest Alliance and Chiquita Brands developed the “Better Banana Project” to address environmental and social problems on banana farms in Latin America. It is designed to show the product was produced in an eco-friendly way, including satisfactory worker conditions. By 2000, the Rainforest Alliance had certified all of the farms owned by Chiquita in Latin America.

All these standards affect not only the companies that implement them, but also most producers in the countries where they operate. For example in Honduras, both Dole and Chiquita produced only part of the fruit they export, and the rest is produced by local growers. Local growers may not be able to sell them their fruit unless they comply with these new environmental standards.

The “EUREP/GAP” protocol issued in 2000 is a voluntary private standard for fresh fruit and vegetable production that ensures traceability from the consumer to the field. It covers practices on soil, fertilizer, and pesticides, as well as worker health, safety, and welfare. The standard was developed by the Euro Retailer Produce Working Group (EUREP), representing a group of Europe’s leading food retailers, in order to provide consumers with safe, healthy, and environmentally friendly produce. The key aspect of this protocol is traceability, which small producers and traders may find too expensive to implement.

Banana production practices that aim at environmental protection and were disseminated in recent years include, inter-alia the treatment of waste waters, the removal of plastics from the field, compost technology from reject bananas and other organic residues to recover the physical properties of soils, and more efficient systems of irrigation and fertilization that minimize downstream pollution.

4.6 Transportation

Three innovations of significance in the transportation of bananas are refrigeration, the containerization of shipment and the use of pallets. Developments in refrigeration (and ripening) technologies have allowed shippers to transport bananas in a “latent” state and at the same time, achieve a product that when fully ripen maintains the original characteristics of taste and presentation. Refrigeration today consists not only of controlling the temperature, but also the humidity and air composition of the shipment. Refrigeration of ship hatches was developed in the early twentieth century and that of containers in the late 1960s. Chiquita bought the first refrigerated container ships for transporting bananas between Latin America and the US in 1976, began to use controlled atmosphere in 1992 and computerized systems for monitoring atmosphere conditions in the late 1990s.

Another development has been the use of refrigerated containers. Containers allow farmers to harvest on a continuous basis as opposed to ship days, and reduce stevedoring and handling costs in the ports. Pallets are also increasingly being used in containers, as these can speed the downloading and save on distribution costs by allowing the load to be divided into smaller units. Moreover, refrigerated containers allow ships to transport back to the exporting country smaller quantities of various products (backhaul operations) cheaper than insulated hatches on reefers.

Vertical air flow has increasingly superseded horizontal air flow in reefers because it was found that the distance the refrigeration travels vertically through the shipment is shorter than horizontally. Cartons (containers where bananas are transported) have also seen modifications on their size and the layout of perforations. Carton size and perforations play important roles in ensuring that air flows easily through and around the pallet. A new type of carton called the tray was developed in the mid 1990s, which measures 60 by 40 cm and is packed with a single layer of bananas. According to some ripeners, the trays allow for a more efficient control of temperature during ripening compared to the standard telescopic carton. Moreover, traders have claimed that, compared to the telescopic carton, trays require less handling during transport and in supermarkets (improving the quality of fruit and saving on labour). Telescopic cartons may be more economical on bulkier shipments, but reservations have been made by some producers about the difficulties of adapting the existing packing facilities to trays, which are designed for the standard cartons of 18.14 kg.

4.7 Ripening

According to retailers, bananas are an “impulsive purchase” because consumers cannot resist buying them when they are displayed in an unblemished condition. Yet bananas are delicate fruits that travel long distances, are easily bruised and need specialized facilities for ripening. An innovation that followed from the delivery of dormant bananas by refrigerated cargoes in ports is the use of ethylene to trigger the ripening process. Ripening consists of the production of sugar from starch (which gives the banana a sweeter taste), the softening of tissues and the destruction of chlorophyll that turns the skin yellow. It is a complex operation that requires close monitoring and is labour intensive. Air temperature, humidity and gas composition need to be regulated constantly with the use of ventilation fans, and traders are progressively turning to computerized systems to automate the process.

[28] FAO has supported the development of new banana varieties using biotechnology-based breeding techniques. See for example the Banana Improvement Project (BIP), cosponsored by the Common Fund for Commodities and the IBRD.
[29] Banana farmers in the Canary Islands use CTP to coincide harvest with Christmas. For more information on CTP see Cohen and Rodriguez 2002.
[30] Growers need to be cautious because an excessive subdivision of tissue may produce unacceptably high rates of malformed plants in the progeny (Richard Yudin, personal communication).
[31] See also Ploetz 2001.
[32] Asociación para la Cooperación en Investigaciones de Bananos en el Caribe y la América Tropical
[33] For a description of the worldwide spread of banana diseases see Jones 2002.
[34] See for example Chapter 14 of Agenda 21, Rio de Janeiro 1992.
[35] For a summary of Integrated Pest Management techniques on bananas see Merchán Vargas 2002.

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